20 years of Either/Or

It’s 20 years since Elliott Smith released Either/Or and, like any good Smith anniversary, there are a few things to catch up with.

Firstly, the expanded edition was given a 10/10 rating by Pitchfork and declared ‘best new reissue’:

By the time Either/Or was released in 1997, Smith was no stranger to the cynical machinations of the post-grunge major label gold rush. A year prior, his former band Heatmiser had been put through that very ringer, an experience captured in Either/Or standouts “Pictures of Me” and “Angeles.” Either/Or sounds like the work of somebody who has zero interest in either conforming to or directly transgressing the “commercial” sounds of the day. It’s too ambitious to read as “lo-fi” and too gritty to read as straightforward pop classicism. Thankfully, this 20th anniversary remaster doesn’t smooth out too many of those rough edges—if anything, it brings the unique sound of the record into even clearer focus.

Jeff Weiss writes on why Either/Or is his ‘break glass in case of existential crisis’ album:

Some people need happy music to buoy their serotonin. Not me. I want dirges so emotionally raw that they’re too severe for normal occasions. I need a “break glass in case of existential crisis” album. Elliott Smith never fails to feel your pain yet avoids melodramatic whining and gothic cliché. He discovered a way to make the softest music sound hard.

There is no “best” Elliott Smith record. Chances are your favorite is the first one you heard. For most of us, that’s Either/Or, the album released 20 years ago last month, the one that Gus Van Sant fell in love with and used to soundtrack Good Will Hunting. It’s what led to Smith’s surreal performance at the Academy Awards and set him on a path to cult stardom. It’s what led to his move to L.A., the major-label deal with DreamWorks, the story that ends with him fatally stabbing himself in his Echo Park apartment with an 8-inch kitchen knife.

I think I bought the record a year after its release in 1998 and was immediately floored by the guitar and vocal arrangements. John EE Allen of Happiness notes the drums on the record, something that often goes unmentioned or even unnoticed:

I’ve always particularly loved the drums on Either/Or—they sound so unhinged, whether they’re doing the muggy simmering thing or distorting like crazy and being played half to death, or that honky snare note in “Alameda,” or the songs (there are a couple) where they crash in just inordinately late. There’s something so heartfelt about the way they’re played. And how, despite them, it’s still at its crux a “guy with an acoustic guitar” record. And it closes with a song as beautiful and hopeful and unaffected as “Say Yes.”

While Jeff Terich calls Either/Or ‘a statement of artistic freedom and cautious optimism‘:

Perhaps more than any of Smith’s other records, either/or is the album in which the Portland singer/songwriter becomes a Rorschach test unto its listeners. You might hear an artist working through his doubts and pain. You might hear a statement of independence. You might even hear something that sounds like Paul Simon. I hear an someone overwhelmed by possibility, celebrating the freedom of being his own artist with some of the most creative and beautifully written music of his career. I hear something honest and genuine, with more than a glimmer of hope.

Fans of Elliott Smith will enjoy Say Yes, a podcast from Louisville Public Media. Guests have so far included Gus Van Sant, Jack Black, Mary Lou Lord and Ben Gibbard. It’s interesting whether you’re a newcomer to Smith’s work or a super-fan; interest is assumed, but not detailed prior knowledge of his work, and even those like me who’ve seen the film, read multiple books, countless articles and oral histories about Smith will be entertained and informed by the guests’ anecdotes.

The podcast features some delightful piano arrangements of Smith’s songs by Joshua Piper, a.k.a. heavypiano:

As a side note, over the past few years I’ve been increasingly enamoured of Alex G, a Philly-based wunderkind who’s about to release his 8th album in what seems like about 6 weeks. I hear a lot of Smith in him. Here’s where to start with Alex G, courtesy of Pitchfork.